Note — Jun 19, 2022

Three Design Principles for Protopian Governance

Hanzi Freinacht, political philosopher, historian and sociologist, proposes some design principles for future governance. In this piece he, I believe, uses the word protopia more as a term for a desirable future although in his preceding writings he seems to align with Kevin Kelly (who coined the term) who talks about “better futures.” Btw, that’s not exactly the same protopia as monika bielskyte who also took the word from Kelly but focuses more on the plurality of futures instead of a mythical “better” one.

The ‘topia’ in the word gives a good indication that, like in many exercises of the kind, he doesn’t necessarily cover how we get there, which would have been especially intriguing to know for his third principle. Although he does see it has a vision, not a prescription, and as a transition to something similar. Often when it comes to governance, people seem to want to “get to Denmark” (“having a stable liberal democracy, a functional market, and significant social welfare”) but that tends to be seen as an end-goal. Freinacht goes further and proposes three principles for next steps in liberal democracy.

First, more collective intelligence instead of more democracy, by which he means deeper knowledge collectively and from those put in charge, not just voting on everything left and right (obviously, I’m paraphrasing a lot here). Second, a much more collaborative meshwork of governance, more interdependence of ‘levels’ of government, instead of (without denying it) a focus on subsidiarity. Third, deeper feedback cycles while limiting fast and shallow ones. You’ll have to read that third one but basically taking more time to measure before changing things (less frequent polling in politics, more reflection) while also changing things more regularly on a longer timescale (revisiting a country’s constitution every twenty years, for example). Lots to ponder and implies some fascinating potentials up ahead.

[T]he four great strands of democratic decision making: direct democracy, representative democracy, participatory democracy, and deliberative democracy cannot be viewed as inherently practically or morally superior to one another. Rather, you need to see which types of decisions can reasonably be made by which forms of democratic governance.

I instead hold that a sort of “meshwork governance” is the direction of protopian development. By this I mean to say that units of governance can and should exchange influence over one another, so as to create a lattice, network, or meshwork of lateral representation. […]

I have thus come to believe that the principle of subsidiarity is a very partial description of the future of governance, and that meshwork governance is the stronger attractor point. It opens up the question of who is a stakeholder and where: Are hospitals stakeholders in schools—if so, to which degree? […]

A large set of different units of governance that are tailored to maximize the collective intelligence with which different topics are managed, which are laterally connected into a meshwork of mutual influence, and which continuously evolve by periodically updating their constitutional forms and the stated purposes they serve.